MLB

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

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USA TODAY

Cubs targeting Alex Cobb while Theo Epstein says fans ‘absolutely’ should expect a division title next year

ORLANDO, Fla. – Theo Epstein sat in the middle of a hotel suite at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and pushed back against any idea that the Cubs will lower their sights this winter or take a step back in 2018.

“Should fans expect us to win the division next year?” Epstein said. “Absolutely. Absolutely, they should expect that.”

The president of baseball operations isn’t conceding anything, even as the Cubs begin laying the groundwork to replace 40 percent of their rotation and rebuild the bullpen during this week’s general manager meetings in Florida.

The Cubs have already met with Alex Cobb’s agent, creating a dialogue with Danny Horwits of Beverly Hills Sports Council when there’s obvious mutual interest in potentially making him the next core player at Wrigley Field.  

Cobb trusts Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey – his old manager and pitching coach with the Tampa Bay Rays – and wants to be in a winning situation with a good clubhouse vibe. This still might take a four- or five-year commitment, even with a guy who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and has never come close to throwing 200 innings in a single season.

But Epstein is looking at the glass as more than half full, knowing that the rotation should already be 60 percent complete for 2018, 2019 and 2020 with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Combined, they have 18 seasons with at least 30 starts while only Lester, a three-time World Series champion, is on the wrong side of 30.

By Tuesday night, super-agent Scott Boras hadn’t yet done his State of Boras. Corp media scrum in the hotel lobby and announced his new Jake Arrieta metaphor, but the sense is the Cubs are at best a safety-net option if the Cy Young Award winner lingers too long on the open market this winter.  

John Lackey isn’t retiring, but he’s more of a last resort than a realistic option to return to Chicago, given his age (39), starter’s ego and bad fit if he had to move to the bullpen.  

If the Cubs go for a higher-end pitcher like Cobb, look for them to pick up more of a buy-low starter and create an opportunity at the back of their rotation. Think of an under-the-radar name like Miles Mikolas, who pitched parts of three seasons for the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers before moving to Japan and going 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA across the last three years with the Yomiuri Giants.

“Fans should be extremely optimistic about this seven-year run that we’re hopefully on,” Epstein said. “By no means do we look at it as a run of three years of contention and then any sort of falloff. But that within a run of that length – seven years, hopefully, at least – there are going to be years that pose more challenges than other years.

“We’ve known for a long time that 2018 was going to pose unique challenges, because it was the year that Jake would be eligible for free agency and it was also the same year that a lot of our best players would enter the arbitration process.

“We did look at 2016 and 2017, for example, as posing unique opportunities, because so many of our best players were not yet eligible for arbitration. We had Jake under control. We had the first half of Jon Lester’s contract, so we wanted to make sure we maximized our club’s chances in those years. Didn’t hold anything back.

“At the same time, right now, the exercise is: How do we maximize the next four years? How do we make sure we have as many bites at the apple?”

A foursome that includes Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Cobb would maintain a high floor in an underwhelming division and allow the front office to get aggressive at the trade deadline again. The Cubs should have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in the middle of a lineup that scored 800-plus runs last season, Addison Russell and Javier Baez at the center of a defense that played at a historic level during the World Series year and a bullpen that will be upgraded with multiple free agents from a strong class of relievers.

“We’re excited about our future,” Epstein said. “We’ve been to three straight (National League Championship Series) with this group largely intact. There are always going to be some changes, but the challenges also represent opportunities to get better.

“We were far from a perfect team last year. We weren’t a perfect team in 2016, either. There’s tremendous opportunity for growth, both with the players that we have and players that we can bring in from outside the organization.

“Our goals haven’t changed at all. We know that some years things are going to line up better than others for obvious improvement in the offseason or tremendous flexibility. And other years there are going to be more obstacles that you have to consider as you operate. But that’s what makes it interesting.”

White Sox add prospect with intriguing power potential

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USA TODAY

White Sox add prospect with intriguing power potential

The White Sox already boast one of the most loaded farm systems in all of baseball, and on Saturday they added another interesting prospect to their stable. 

The South Siders claimed outfielder/first baseman Daniel Palka off waivers from the Minnesota Twins. Palka was placed on waivers earlier this week after the Twins had to trim their 40-man roster.

Palka, who was a third-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Georgia Tech in 2013, was the Twins' Hitting Prospect of the Year in 2016 after slashing .254/.327/.521 with 34 home runs and 90 RBI.

The left-handed hitting Palka slashed .274/.330/.431 with 12 home runs and 44 RBI in 90 games between the Gulf Coast League and Triple-A Rochester in 2017. 

Palka, 26, has a career minor-league slash line of .269/.343/.496 with 106 home runs and 354 RBI in 538 games.

Considered a bat-first prospect, Palka possesses raw plus power. Check out his scouting report from MLB Pipeline.

Here are some highlights showing why scouts are intrigued by Palka's power potential.

A two time MiLB.com All-Star, Palka was ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Twins' No. 22 prospect before he was claimed off waivers by the White Sox.

The White Sox 40-man roster now stands at 35 after Saturday's move.

Now what? One year after Rain Delay Speech, Cubs still waiting for Jason Heyward’s next breakthrough

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AP

Now what? One year after Rain Delay Speech, Cubs still waiting for Jason Heyward’s next breakthrough

One year after The Rain Delay Speech, the Cubs have enormous respect for Jason Heyward as a clubhouse leader and a Gold Glove defender — while still facing questions about if he will ever again be an offensive presence, whether or not that still makes him an everyday player and how to salvage their $184 million investment.

The hitting coaches who supervised Heyward’s swing overhaul last offseason in Arizona are gone, with John Mallee fired, assistant Eric Hinske taking the lead job with the Los Angeles Angels and Chili Davis and Andy Haines now overseeing an all-or-nothing lineup that scored 822 runs during the regular season and then posted a .530 OPS in 10 playoff games.

With team president Theo Epstein signaling that the hard-to-find prototypical leadoff hitter is probably more of a luxury than a necessity with this group — and admitting trading big-league talent to get much-needed pitching is a real possibility — the Cubs need Heyward to be the well-rounded player they envisioned when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history.

“It’s good that we have an opportunity to have a lot of the same guys in this room on this team, because that goes a long way,” Heyward said inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse after the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. “You look at teams in history that have done well in the postseason, they make it known they expect to be in October. That’s an awesome thing.

“But I personally am looking forward to having another opportunity to go to work in the offseason and do more to help. I feel like if I get some more done, it’s a different result for this team as a whole.”

Heyward’s uptick in production only left him with a .715 OPS, or 35 points below the big-league average this season. It still represented an 84-point boost from last year’s offensive spiral. He also put up more homers (11) and RBI (59) this season, even while getting 111 fewer plate appearances than he did in 2016.

During these last two postseason runs combined, Heyward went 7-for-65 (.108 average) with zero homers, one RBI and 16 strikeouts, becoming more of a part-time player/defensive replacement than a lineup fixture.

“I definitely see an improvement,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I am absolutely seeing more hand action in his swing. There’s less push in his swing. I think he’s done a lot of really good work and it’s going to keep getting better. The guy’s so committed to getting better.

“His willingness to adjust — to understand or believe that he needed to do something differently — it starts with that. Some guys may be so hardheaded that they’re unwilling to adapt or adjust.

“He was looking for some new answers, and he found some new things. When you make adjustments like that, you’re always wanting to see that instant gratification, and there was some, I thought.

“Give it some time, and this could really continue to get better, because he’s so committed. He’s such a good athlete. He’s so strong, and now he’s starting to feel his hands in a way that he had not for a while. That’s what I’m seeing.”

A big idea behind the Heyward megadeal was that even if he bombed in the first year, he would not have to reinvent himself in his mid-30s and scramble to make up for declining physical skills and health issues. Maddon talks about Heyward being in that sweet spot for a big-league player in terms of ability, knowledge and experience — age 28 — but eventually time won’t be on their side anymore.

“I would like for him to stay on the same path,” Maddon said. “I think he’s growing into the adjustment that he’s made. I think next year’s going to be a pretty good indicator of where he’s at. From where he was last year – to the adjustments he made in the offseason into this season – and now he’ll have another offseason to really fine-tune that.

“When you see him next year, you’ll find out exactly where he’s at developmentally as a hitter.”

Heyward, a finalist this year for his fifth Gold Glove, is still a game-changer in right field, and someone who runs the bases with an alertness and an aggressiveness that can shape an entire team’s mentality.

Though Heyward doesn’t really like to talk about it or promote himself as a leader, the meeting he led in a Progressive Field weight room during last year’s epic World Series Game 7 win over the Cleveland Indians is another sign of the calming, energizing influence he has on teammates.

Epstein wants to believe Heyward can still be the 6-WAR force you saw during four of his first six seasons in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

“That’s really the standard,” Epstein said. “By definition, I think he can improve more than marginally from where he is right now, because he’s done it in the past.

“That’s what we want to get him back to – being a six-win player. And in order to do that, he’s got to continue to play his great defense, continue to run the bases really well, (plus) the added benefit of everything he does in the clubhouse and with his leadership and professionalism.

“But to be that type of player again, there needs to be some improvement with the bat to get back to that level. We’d love to see that, which means driving the ball more consistently to all fields and getting on base more and being a little bit more of an extra-base threat.

“He’s done it before, so you’re never going to give up (the idea) that could come back. This is a guy who has a ton of pride and understands that he has contributed to a lot of wins and to a World Series title and to another successful season this year, but that there’s more he can do and wants to do.

“I have no doubt. He’s a proud guy. He’s a talented player. And there’s some room for improvement offensively.”

Heyward, who has no-trade rights through 2018 and an opt-out clause after that season, didn’t take the same victory lap many of his teammates did after the World Series, moving close to the team’s Mesa complex and going back to work in the cage. That attitude won’t change now after a disappointing NLCS that quieted the dynasty talk around Wrigleyville.

“Once you get a taste of it, you want to have it again,” Heyward said. “When you fall short, absolutely, it gives you some more motivation, new perspective.”